Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Committee recommends British Library return 15th c. Sienese panel

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The Spoliation Advisory Panel, a committee of the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has issued a report (pdf) recommending that the British Library return a 15th century painted wood panel to the descendants of its 1936 owners. It’s not so much a matter of law — the original owners’ title would have expired by 1948 at the latest and the British Library didn’t take possession of the piece until 1968 — but rather the “moral strength of the Claimants’ case” that underpins the recommendation.

The panel is a tempera on wood painting attributed to Guidoccio Cozzarelli that originally was used to cover ledgers and other financial records in the Biccherna, the Sienese treasury that managed all the city-state’s revenues and expenses. It depicts the entrance and the exit of public officers from the Biccherna in 1488. Underneath the cityscape are the coats of arms of the officials; underneath the coats of arms the officials’ names are listed.

The practice of covering the records of the Biccherna with painted panels began in the mid-13th century. They started off as simple designs — the camerlengo (the chamberlain or head treasury official) at his desk, the coats of arms of Biccherna officials — and became increasingly complex as the city grew in wealth and political prominence. They began to include historical scenes, current events and religious allegories, eventually growing beyond the constraints of the ledger cover into wood panel paintings commissioned from the area’s best artists that were hung on the treasury wall.

Although much of the vigour of the form was lost after Cosimo de’ Medici conquered Siena in 1555, Biccherne continued to be made into the 17th century. They began to be dispersed in the 18th century when local families claimed them as testaments to their lines’ histories and heraldry. The city’s archive of panels was plundered by Napoleon and shipped to Paris. They were sent back after the Bourbon Restoration (one cartload fell into the Rhône on the way), but some of them were sold off when they arrived. The city’s collection was gradually pieced back together starting in the 19th century. Today there are 105 Biccherne on display at the Siena State Archives.

The Biccherna panel now in the British Library was in a Jewish-owned Munich art gallery whose contents were forcibly sold at auction in June of 1936. The owners had been presented with an extortionate tax bill in 1935, a common Nazi practice which, coupled with banking restrictions and other fees and tariffs, ensured Jews would be stripped of all their property before they could leave the country. When, as expected, they couldn’t pay the bill, they were forced to sell their assets at absurdly low prices. In 1930 the Biccherna panel was priced at 15,000 Reichsmarks (about $3,500 dollars in 1930 because inflation in Germany was crazy; at 1936 rates it was worth nearly double). At the 1936 auction it sold for 2,800 Reichsmarks, the equivalent of about $1,100 at the more stable currency conversion rate.

There is no record of who bought it at the forced sale. The panel next appears at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1942. It was sold as part of the collection of Arthur Bendir and was purchased by Henry Davis, a collector of important book bindings. Davis donated it to the British Library in 1968 as part of a gift of 890 rare bindings. Its place in the Henry Davis Gift is one of the reasons the BL really wants to keep the panel. It wants to keep the collection intact and accessible to scholars.

The claimants submitted their case to the Spoliation Advisory Panel because the BL can only return an object of cultural heritage in its collection at the recommendation of the Panel and with the approval of Culture Minister. They want the Biccherna Panel back. The British Library hopes to negotiate payment in lieu of restitution. The Spoilation Panel is fine with that plan, but it’s the claimants that will make the final call. If they can’t agree to a compensation solution, then the BL will have to return the piece.

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Rare 7th c. silver bowl found in western Netherlands

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Leiden University archaeologists have unearthed a rare and beautiful silver bowl from the from the early 7th century in Oegstgeest, a town in the province of South Holland in the western Netherlands. It was discovered just over a year ago, on June 4th, 2013, during the excavation of village from the 6th and 7th century on the banks of the Rhine. The find wasn’t announced for a year to allow the team to complete the excavation without interference from treasure hunters and lookie-loos.

The silver bowl itself dates to late antiquity, probably around 300-500 A.D., and is decorated with plant and animal figures in gold leaf. On the inside, three large trees or plants go from the base of the bowl to a border frieze. The plants divide the frieze into three sections separated by rosettes. Each section features animal figures running, one set appears to be three deer, another is two bucks and a dog, the third is two mythological animals, one of which appears to be carrying a human leg in its mouth. These decorative motifs suggest the bowl was originally manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean or Middle East.

It’s the elaborate gold and garnet appliqués that date to the first half of the 7th century. The base of the bowl is inset with a central disc that has garnets inlaid in a cross pattern. Between the garnets are swirls made of knotted gold wire. Tiny versions of the swirls decorate the border of the disc. There are two mounts with suspension rings added to the outside of the bowl. They too are gold with garnet accents and swirls of knotted gold wire. The style of decoration is from the German Rhineland (except for the suspension rings which are more in keeping with English and Scandinavian styles), so someone took an expensive Eastern bowl and made it even more expensive by adding Germanic gold accents.

The rings are characteristic of hanging bowls and the handsome interior decoration would certainly be more effectively shown off if the bowl were suspended with the interior visible. However, in order to hang evenly the bowl would have needed a third ring and there’s no evidence of a third mount on the bowl, not even rivet holes. It’s possible the piece was in the process of being manufactured, which would make it a very rare artifact captured mid-production.

The bowl was presumably used as a drinking vessel or a wash basin initially, but at some point a small hole was made in the base of the bowl from the outside in. The hole would have made it impossible for the bowl to hold liquids without leaking and it seems to have been done on purpose.

The ancient village was criss-crossed by several small waterways leading to and from the Rhine. The bowl was found in one of those small waterways, and archaeologists believe it was deliberately deposited as a sacrifice.

Researchers are assuming that the bowl, which is 21 centimetres wide and 11 centimetres high, was buried as part of a ritual sacrifice. Such gilded discoveries are extremely rare. This one is exceptional because such bowls were usually made of bronze. In addition, they were not, as a rule, lavishly decorated with gold leaf. This means that we are dealing with an artefact that is unique, not only for the Netherlands, but for all of Western Europe. (Until the discovery of this bowl there were no indications of the presence of a local or regional elite on the Oegstgeest settlement. It may be that in this period some members of the elite lived on ‘simple’ farms.)

The was in pieces when it was first found. A full restoration funded by the Province of South Holland has returned it to its former glory. The bowl is now on display at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities as part of the Golden Middle Ages exhibition that runs through October 26th. After that, it will be exhibited in the museum’s permanent collection on long-term loan from the Province of South Holland.

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The pursuit of Happiness. Period. Or not.

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

The official transcript of the Declaration of Independence puts a period after the iconic phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The transcript is drawn from an 1823 engraving by printer William J. Stone who was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to make a facsimile of the original manuscript on parchment written by Timothy Matlack, clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, and signed by the Continental Congress on August 2nd, 1776. (July 4th is the day the Declaration was officially adopted, not the day John Hancock put his John Hancock on it.) The Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration of Independence.

By the time Stone made his copy, the original was already suffering from condition issues. That’s why he was commissioned to copy it, in fact, so there would be a version for distribution to the surviving signers, their families, luminaries of the Revolution like Lafayette and public institutions nationwide. Stone’s engraving is considered the closest thing we have to the Declaration when it was still legible. The original, now on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is kept in a bulletproof glass case filled with inert argon gas. The writing is so faded as to be next to illegible.

It’s impossible to confirm with the naked eye, therefore, whether there was a period after “the pursuit of Happiness” in the original. Professor Danielle Allen from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, thinks there was not, that Stone made a mistake that has been carried forward nearly two centuries. It’s not pedantry that underpins her analysis. The punctuation plays a significant part in the interpretation of the preamble.

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Several early documents support Allen’s argument. There is no period in any of the official versions written or printed in 1776. Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft has a semicolon after the pursuit of Happiness, just as it does at the end of all the “that” clauses in the sentence. The Dunlap Broadside, printed in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776, uses a triplicate dash, an m-dash followed by a space and a hyphen.

There is a period in an unauthorized leaked version of the Declaration published in Benjamin Towne’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on July 6, 1776. The first official document to include a period after Happiness was the 1777 broadside printed by Mary Katharine Goddard. The first public issue of the Declaration to include the names of all the signatories (minus one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, who may have signed after Goddard’s version was printed), the Goddard broadside was commissioned by Congress for distribution to the states. Goddard and Towne knew each other well. Towne began his career in the print shop of William Goddard, Mary’s father, and Mary had reprinted Towne’s version in her own paper, the Baltimore Journal, on July 10th, 1776. It’s no surprise, therefore, that she stuck with Towne’s punctuation when she printed the official broadside in January of 1777.

Allen thinks the period made its way into Towne’s bootleg printing as an artifact of the many diacritical marks Jefferson included in his drafts to convey the flow of it as a document to be read out loud. You can read her paper about it, Punctuating Happiness, here (pdf). She goes into very persuasive and fascinating detail, analyzing the early written and print versions, breaking down the stylistic differences between John Adams’ work and Thomas Jefferson’s and ever so much more. It is seriously a page-turner and very appropriate reading for the day.

The National Archives found it persuasive as well. They are now looking into making some changes to their online presentation of the Declaration based on her work, and are examining the possibility of deploying new imaging technology to photograph the Declaration through its encasement and reveal details not visible to the naked eye.

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Min Fanglei reunited with its lid in Hunan museum

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

A large bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang dynasty (12th/11th century B.C.) that is the greatest example of its kind has been donated to the Hunan Provincial Museum where it was reunited with its lid after almost 100 years of separation. It was slated to be the star lot at a Christie’s Asian art auction on March 20th, but a group of Chinese collectors came together to buy the artifact for the museum. The private sale went through on March 19th, one day before the auction. The sum paid is undisclosed, but the scuttlebutt is that it was around $30 million.

At more than two feet high, the Min Fanglei (Min is the name of its maker inscribed inside the vessel’s neck, fanglei is the word for “wine vessel”) is the largest archaic bronze of its kind, taller even without its lid than any other known example with lids.

The vessel’s massive size distinguishes this extraordinary work as one of the foremost examples of its kind. The surface is intricately cast with stylized animals and mysterious monster masks that provide a fascinating insight into early Chinese culture and beliefs. The crisp, precise casting of this complex design vividly illustrates why bronze vessels created during the Shang and Zhou dynasties rank among the finest examples of bronze casting the world has ever seen.

When it last passed through Christie’s hands in 2001, the vessel sold for $9,246,000, then a world auction record for any piece Asian art. It remains a record price for an archaic Chinese bronze sold at auction.

It was certain to blow right through that figure had it gone under the hammer in March. The Hunan Provincial Museum would have found it very expensive to go head-to-head against the deep-pocketed collectors that have driven prices for Asian art into the stratosphere over the past decade or so. It declared its intention to bid, but odds are slim it would have won. Wanting the masterpiece rejoined with its lid in the museum inspired Taiwan collector Robert Tsao to contact his fellow collectors abroad, in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland and call for a united front: nobody bids to give the museum a chance to win. The private purchase ensured nobody else could kill the reunion plan.

The Min Fanglei was unearthed by peasants in Taoyuan County, Hunan province, in 1922. The son of the peasant brought the lid to his school in the hope that the schoolmaster could identify it. The schoolmaster immediately recognized what a treasure it was and bought the lid for 800 hundred silver dollars. Meanwhile, a businessman from Hubei province (Hunan’s neighbor to the north) got wind of the find and bought the body of the vessel for 400 silver dollars. That’s how the two parts got separated.

The lid was sold to a military officer who gave it to the Hunan government in 1952. In 1956 it became part of the permanent collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum. The body was sold to the city of Shanghai in 1924 and then purchased at auction by foreign collectors. While the lid stayed in China, the vessel traveled the world, jumping from collector to collector in the US, the UK, Japan and France. It was a French collector who bought it at the 2001 Christie’s auction. He died earlier this year, which is why the Min Fanglei was on the market again.

The Min Fanglei arrived in Changsha, Hunan’s capital on June 21st. On June 28th at a ceremony at the museum, officials placed the lid on the vessel for the first time in a century. It will go on permanent display at the Hunan Provincial Museum in 2015 when it reopens after a three-year renovation.

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Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

Monday, June 30th, 2014


A portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and his wife Eleanor of Toledo, has been liberated from the atrocious Victorian overpaint that had replaced all her individuality and dignity with a cheeseball beauty standard better suited to a cookie tin lithograph than a Renaissance court painting. The portrait was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1978 when it was reported to be a portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. Bronzino did a portrait of Eleanor wearing a gorgeous brocade dress that is one of the most famous works of the period, but the Carnegie painting was so markedly inferior to that masterpiece that to call the attribution sloppy is a drastic understatement.

The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.

X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.

It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.

Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.

Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.

Isabella was painted repeatedly during her lifetime, often by Alessandro Allori, a prominent Medici court painter and student of Bronzino’s. The Carnegie’s portrait is one of the last.

Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.

Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.

Watch this video to see her in action:

Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.

Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.

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Picasso curtain will move to NY Historical Society

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

The biggest Picasso in the United States will be leaving its home on a wall at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York for what one hopes will be greener pastures at the New York Historical Society. RFR Holding, owner of the historic Seagram Building where the Four Seasons and the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain have lived together in harmony since 1957, planned to remove the work last year. It claimed the wall on which it hung was structurally unsound due to a leaking steam pipe and informed the New York Landmarks Conservancy, owner of the painting since it was donated to it by Vivendi Universal, then owner of the Seagram Building, in 2005, that the curtain would be coming down immediately.

The Conservancy challenged the plan in court. They said the curtain was far too fragile to be moved, especially by rolling the canvas up “one click at a time” and transporting it in a rental van. At the last minute, the court sided with the Conservancy and issued a temporary restraining order. Since then, RFR Holding and the Landmarks Conservancy have been locked in a struggle over the fate of the historical curtain. The discussions have now apparently borne fruit, and the front cloth painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 for a production of the Ballets Russes’ Le Tricorne will be moved to the New York Historical Society, conserved and put on display, all at RFR’s expense.

To move the Picasso, workers will mount hydraulic lifts to detach the top of the curtain from the wall. It will then be wrapped around a wide roller, starting at the bottom. The curtain will first go to a conservator, for cleaning and restoration work. The historical society plans to have it installed for an exhibition in May.

That process sounds a lot like the original “one click at a time” plan which the Conservancy deemed far too dangerous. The art mover agreed that the painting could “crack like a potato chip” under the strain. The Conservancy isn’t too thrilled about it, judging from their press release, but they will have conservators on the ground during the removal and transport stages.

The impetus for this compromise is the looming defeat in court the Conservancy expected. The donation was made on the condition that the curtain remain where it was at the Four Seasons, but that wasn’t going to be able to trump RFR’s solid legal position. From the Landmarks Conservancy press release:

We did our best to maintain it in place. But our only leverage was that the Curtain is specifically included in the current restaurant lease. It was made clear to us that the Curtain would not be included in whatever new lease is negotiated. So, if we had prevailed in Court, the most a judge could grant is that the Curtain stay until the end of the current lease.

Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, purchased and installed the curtain in 1957. She’s not in favor of this plan.

“It sort of breaks my heart,” she said.

Vivendi bought the Seagram company, including its large art collection, in 2000, around the time Mr. Rosen bought the Seagram Building. Later, the financially ailing Vivendi moved to sell the entire Seagram art collection, but Ms. Lambert persuaded Vivendi to bequeath the Picasso to the conservancy.

Lambert has every reason to be bummed. The curtain is an iconic part of what has become a beloved and famous interior. However, the Conservancy had few options here, and it’s undoubtedly better for its long-term prospects for the painting to be in the hands of a museum instead of a company owned by a man who once called the curtain a “schmatte” (Yiddish for “rag”) and who appears to be keen to install works from his own modern art collection in the space. The pressing issue is how to ensure the least possible trauma in the removal and transportation.

The New York Historical Society is thrilled to have it. They plan to make Le Tricorne the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery.

 

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1733 portrait of freed slave acquired by Yorktown museum

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare, 1733, Jamestown-Yorktown FoundationA previously unknown portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), an aristocrat from what is today Senegal who was sold into slavery in 1730 but made his way back home through a series of fortunate events, has been acquired by Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Along with its companion piece by the same artist, this is the earliest known portrait of a slave from the 13 colonies and the first Western portrait of a named African sitter. Its ultimate destination is the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown which is slated to open in 2016, but it will be on display at the Yorktown Victory Center from June 14th through August 3rd.

Ayube Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon in England, was the scion of a wealthy family of Muslim clerics and rulers in the West African Kingdom of Futa. While on a mission to the Gambia River to barter two slaves in exchange for supplies, Diallo was kidnapped and sold into slavery himself. He told the British slavers who bought him from his Mandingo kidnappers that his family would ransom him, but when the message didn’t get to his family in time, William and Henry Hunt loaded him into the ship and sold him to a dealer in Annapolis, Maryland.

He wound up the property of one Mr. Tolsey, a tobacco farmer on Kent Island, Maryland, who first attempted to put Diallo to work in the fields. He couldn’t hack it. This was back-breaking labor, and Diallo was a soft scholar. He was assigned to tending cattle instead, which he was a little better at. After being mocked by children for his prayers, in June of 1731 Diallo ran away. He was soon captured and put in prison in the Kent County Courthouse. There he met a British lawyer named Thomas Bluett whose curiosity was piqued by Diallo’s fine carriage and composure.

Bluett enlisted a translator and found out Diallo came from a wealthy family of important people. Tolsey, keen to derive some kind of profit from this liability of a slave, allowed Diallo to write a letter back home and then gladly allowed an official from the Royal African Company in London to buy his freedom. Diallo and Bluett sailed to London in March of 1733 where the cleric, nobleman and former slave made a social splash. He was commissioned by the future founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, to translate Arabic manuscripts in his library. He was introduced at Court by the Duke of Montagu. And he had his portrait painted by William Hoare.

Bluett describes the painting of the portrait in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, one of the earliest slave narratives (albeit not written in first person):

JOB’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr. Hoare. When the Face was finished, Mr. Hoare ask’d what Dress would be most proper to draw him in; and, upon JOB’s desiring to be drawn in his own Country Dress, told him he could not draw it, unless he had seen it, or had it described to him by one who had: Upon which JOB answered, If you can’t draw a Dress you never saw, why do some of you Painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?

Hoare figured it out in the end, painting Diallo in a white robe and turban, wearing verses from the Qur’an in a pouch around his neck. The use of national dress makes this portrait unique. Other prominent named Africans would be painted after Diallo, but they were depicted wearing English dress and wigs.

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare, 1733, National Portrait GalleryHoare painted two versions of this portrait, although for centuries only one was known and it was long thought lost. The only evidence of it was a 1750 print. It turns out to have been in the same family since 1840 and was rediscovered in December 2009 when the owners put it up for auction at Christie’s in London. The Qatar Museums Authority purchased it for £554,937.50 ($932,517). The Culture Minister put a temporary export block on the painting to give the National Portrait Gallery a chance to raise the money by the end of August 2010. They came within £60,000 of the goal on August 12th, 2010. I was unable to discover if they actually managed to raise the full amount on time, but either way, the NPG made the QMA a purchase offer which it refused. The QMA did withdraw its export application, however, and eventually negotiated a long-term loan with the National Portrait Gallery.

The publicity from the NPG’s fundraising campaign brought attention to the portrait, inspiring the owners of the second version to engage in private sale negotiations with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., purchased the oil-on-canvas painting with funds raised privately, including a lead gift from Foundation trustee Fred D. Thompson, Jr., of Thompson Hospitality, the country’s largest minority-owned food service company. “This portrait is a powerful symbol of the diversity of colonial America’s population, which included people from many different African cultures,” says Thompson. “Diallo – his image and story – is an ideal teaching opportunity for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries.”

“For approximately three years now, the Foundation has been in confidential negotiations to acquire this important portrait,” says Thomas E. Davidson, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior curator. “Diallo’s visage speaks for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who remain largely unknown, yet who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population.”

 

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Swedish city returns ancient textiles to Peru

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Hummingbird tunic with fringe, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureAfter years of negotiations, the City of Gothenburg in southwestern Sweden has agreed to return its collection of 89 textiles from the Paracas peninsula to Peru. The 2,000-year-old textiles are in extremely fragile condition, so they will be repatriated in phases. The first four pieces arrive in Peru next week and will be unveiled on June 18th. The rest will be transported over the course of seven years until the whole collection is returned by 2021.

Julio C. TelloThese extraordinary embroidered textiles first came to archaeologists’ attention in the early 20th century when they began to appear in private collections. Their intensity of color, size, design and composition were unique, unlike any textiles from known Peruvian cultures. Realizing that the textiles had to have been looted from an unknown site, Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello hired professional looter Juan Quintana to guide him to the find spot in 1925. He led Tello to Paracas, a desert peninsula on the southern coast of Peru, where Tello’s team excavated the remains of a civilization that flourished from around 700 B.C. to the second century A.D. when it became assimilated into the Nazca culture.

Mantle with squares, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureThe people of the Paracas culture were able fishermen, farmers and craftspeople. They made obsidian tools, ceramics, hammered gold jewelry, basketry and most gloriously of all, complex and beautiful textiles. Made from the wool of camelids (llamas, alpacas and vicuñas) and cotton, the textiles were colored in more than 200 different bright shades using natural dyes. Every fabric was embroidered by hand with cactus thorn needles, and when you consider that textiles have been found that are 34 meters (112 feet) long, you can imagine what an incredibly labor-intensive process it was. Archaeologists believe it took years to produce a single such masterpiece.

Illustration of Paracas burial bundleCreating such intricate and large textiles was a collaborative effort, the work of many people working at once. The textiles had important religious significance and indicated a person’s status in the community. The most exceptional examples were discovered by Tello on October 1st, 1927, when he encountered a vast funerary complex he named the Wari Kayan necropolis. There 429 people were found buried wrapped in layer after layer of textiles. The dead were adorned in their most prized possessions — jewelry, clothes, headbands — and seated in fetal position in a basket. Grave goods, food and sacrificial objects were added, and then the entire basket was wrapped in layers of fine embroidered textiles with a rough cotton cloth on the outermost layer. That’s why the large textiles were needed, because by the time they got to the outer layers, the bundles got big, as much as five feet high and seven feet wide.

Killer whale turban, Paracas, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureWhen Tello unearthed these marvels, they had been kept in pristine condition by the arid desert climate and the lack of oxygen and light in the underground burials. As soon as they were excavated, the textiles started to degrade. All the Paracas finds were sent to museums in Lima for study and conservation. In 1930, the dictatorship of Augusto B. Leguía was overthrown in a military coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Luis Miguel Sánchez Cerro. The subsequent social and political upheaval and war with Colombia left the Paracas textiles vulnerable to depredation. Looting and smuggling increased dramatically.

Fish turban, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIt was during this chaos that 89 Paracas textiles found their way to Sweden. They were smuggled out of Peru in the early 1930s by Sven Karell, then the Swedish Consul General in Peru, who acquired them on the black market and shipped them back home into the appreciative arms of the Ethnographic Department of Gothenburg Museum. They went on display in November of 1932, but they were exposed to UV light, varying levels of heat and moisture, and repeated handling, all of which contributed to their decay.

Cat poncho, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIn 1939 the museum was renovated. To prepare for their new exhibition, the Paracas textiles were sewn onto linen or dyed cotton and framed in glass. In 1963 the textiles were mounted vertically onto panels that could be pulled out. This turned out to be a disaster, as the vibrations from the pulling out damaged the increasingly delicate pieces. Finally in 1970 the textiles were taken out of public view. The museum moved to a new building in 1992, by which time the textiles had been installed in custom-built display cases. Then the Paracas collection moved again in 2001, this time to the Museum of World Culture. Because the fibers were in such poor condition, the textiles were moved on air suspended truck.

Four-color tunic, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureThey remained out of view until 2008, when after careful analysis the textiles which were found to be able to withstand movement were put on display. They were laid out horizontally and transported the short distance from the archives to the Museum of World Culture in vibration-free cases. A crane lifted them into the gallery through a window. The exhibition ran for three years. When the textiles returned to the museum archives, there was more fiber damage even with nothing but the utmost of caution employed in their transportation and display.

Black robe figure mantle, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIt was that 2008 exhibition that spurred the repatriation talks. Not only did the museum not deny that the textiles had been smuggled by the Consul General, the exhibition was entitled A Stolen World and detailed the whole saga without flinching. It’s quite remarkable, really. I’ve never seen a museum so directly confront its complicity in the traffic in looted antiquities. Peruse the museum’s dedicated Paracas website to see how they handle the issue and to view some exquisite photographs of the collection.

Fish mantle, Paracas, 100 B.C. - 100 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureIn December of 2009, Peru contacted the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally requesting the return of the purloined Paracas textiles. Since the museum had just opened an exhibition whose catalog included copies of the letters between Karell and the Gothenburg Museum officials overtly plotting the receipt of stolen goods, there was none of the usual nonsense about “good faith” and “anonymous Swiss collections.” Peru’s legal right was undisputed. The main question was whether the textiles could stand transportation across the globe when they could barely stand to be transported a mile or so from storage to the display galleries.

Calendar cloak detail, Paracas, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World CultureNow those issues have been dealt with as responsibly as possible, and the first four Paracas textiles are on their way home. One of them is a particularly exceptional example, a cloak about 104 by 53 centimeters made of squares with 32 different figures of animals, humans, plants and tools. Paracas textiles usually employ single motifs repeated over and over, so this tiled design is unique. Archaeologists believe it represents the movement of time, like a gorgeously embroidered Advent calendar. According to the felicitously named Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, Peru’s Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony, the Paracas calendar textile is “the most important textile from Peru and one of the most important in the world.”

Paracas calendar cloak, 100 A.D. - 200 A.D., image courtesy Gothenburg Museum of World Culture

 

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Beached whale revealed in 17th c. Dutch painting

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen seemed like an unassuming beach scene when conservator Shan Kuang first began to work on it. Painted in 1641 and donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873 along with a group of other Dutch landscapes by patron Richard Kerrich, View of Scheveningen Sands was sent to the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for conservation while the Dutch Golden Age gallery was closed for a year-long refurbishment. Its resin varnish coating had yellowed over time, so Kuang was tasked with removing it to freshen up the painting for the grand reopening of the gallery.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, before restorationKuang began to painstakingly clean the canvas. Her work soon revealed an incongruous lone figure of a man standing on the horizon. There was only sea underneath him and sky above, so it was unclear how he fit into the composition. More cleaning of the area next to him exposed a dark grey triangular shape, which led Kuang to speculate that the man might be in the rigging of a sailboat that had been overpainted. She could see that the ocean in that spot was more crudely painted than in the rest of the painting.

After much discussion with Hamilton Kerr conservation experts and Fitzwilliam curators, they decided the overpaint was not the work of van Anthonissen. Its thick impasto and inferior quality indicated a later alteration done in the 18th or early 19th century. By the time the painting was donated in 1873, nobody knew it had been overpainted. Removing it was still a risky prospect. It’s difficult to take away just the paint layer that was added without harming the original paint, and you never know what ugly surprises might be concealed by the overpaint.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, after restorationThey decided to take the plunge, and Kuang set about removing the thick overpaint with a scalpel and a few carefully chosen solvents. To ensure she didn’t damage the original, she viewed the work under the microscope. Under the paint she found not a ship, but a beached sperm whale.

The man who seemed to be standing on the horizon is, in fact, balanced on the whale’s back where Kuang suggests that he might even be measuring its length.The chosen focus of the painting resonates with a surge of public interest in whales: contemporary records show many instances of whale beaching on the coastline of the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. While the Anthonissen painting seeks to represent the whale in a realistic manner, some prints from the period portray whales as rampaging monsters of the deep and omens of disaster.

"Beached Sperm Whale at Beverwijk on 19 December 1601" by Jan SaenredamRealistic depictions of beached whales and viewing them as omens of disaster was not mutually exclusive. The Dutch Republic in the late 16th, early 17th century was experiencing the religious and political upheaval of the Eighty Years’ War, a period that coincides with the heyday of the beached whale in Dutch art, literature and political writing. The appearance of a whale was seen as a portent of defeat in battle or a sign of God’s displeasure at the prospect of a truce between religious factions. A 1602 engraving by Jan Saenredam of a beached whale at Beverwijk has a long Latin note underneath detailing the exact measurements of the mammal (60 feet long, 14 feet high, 36 feet in circumference, 14-foot tail, 12-foot lower jaw) while above the tableau is a frame of allegorical references to earthquakes, eclipses and the passage of time. There are also more anatomically correct details of the whale after decomposition gases caused it to explode and Death shooting Amsterdam with a plague arrow.

By the time Anthonissen painted his beached whale landscape, the trend was losing steam. Negotiations between Spain and the Dutch Republic began in 1646, and a Treaty formalizing Dutch independence was signed in 1648. The prophetic vision of beached whales no longer bedeviled the stable, confident Republic. With the interest in the subject long faded, someone decided to hide the dead whale altogether, perhaps to make it more palatable to a wider market as an innocuous beach scene.

View of Scheveningen Sands, with a Stranded Sperm Whale is now on display in the reopened Dutch Golden Age gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

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Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

The British Museum’s consistently fascinating blog has an entry decoding the complex iconography of Anglo-Saxon art. If you’ve ever found yourself following the intricate interlacing lines and curves of an Anglo-Saxon design, trying to identify a highly stylized animal or face mask, then you’ve doubtless wished for a labeled map. British Museum curator Rosie Weetch and illustrator Craig Williams have made that wish come true.

They select three pieces from different periods to decode. The first is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch that was unearthed from the grave of a woman on the Isle of Wight in 1855. It was cast in silver and gilded on the front surface, a technique influenced by southern Scandinavian metalwork. Created in the early 6th century A.D., the brooch is a beautiful example of Style I art, characterized by a jumble of interwoven figures art historians amusingly call “animal salad.”

Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch, early 6th c. A.D., and interpretive map

The next example is from a century later, the great gold buckle from the early 7th century Sutton Hoo ship burial. It’s a Style II piece, characterized by more fluid intertwined animal figures. There are 13 animals on the buckle surface: snakes and four-legged creatures on the plate and tongue shield, snakes biting themselves on the loop, two animals biting a smaller animal on the top of the buckle, and two bird heads on the shoulders of the buckle.

Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

Great buckle from Sutton Hoo and interpretive map

The last piece skips ahead to the 9th century Trewhiddle Style, named after the town in Cornwall where a hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins and decorated artifacts were discovered in a tin mine in 1774. The style is distinguished by enlaced animals, birds and humans, leafy scrollwork and a particular emphasis on using silver rather than gold and brass. The Fuller Brooch features the classic Trewhiddle humans, animals and plants along the border, but the central iconography is unique.

At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

Fuller Brooch and map of the five senses

The metaphoric significance of these figures, its best-in-class quality and the unique vision of the piece may suggest a connection to the court of King Alfred the Great, who was not only a successful military leader but also had a deep and abiding passion for learning and education. The long period of Viking raids had decimated centers of learning. Alfred made it a mission to reinvigorate Latin education and, for the first time, to advocate learning in the English vernacular. He put his money where his mouth was, personally translating four major works from Latin into Old English: Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms.

Chapter XXXIV of his translation of Boethius uses the senses as a metaphor for enlightenment and understanding:

But gold and silver stones and every kind of gem and all this present weal enlighten not at all the eyes of the mind nor at all whet their sharpness for beholding true happiness but they rather blind the eyes of the mind than sharpen them For all the things which please us here in this present life are earthly and are therefore fleeting But the wonderful Brightness which enlighteneth all things and ruleth all things willeth not that souls should perish but willeth to enlighten them If then any man can see the brightness of the heavenly light with the clear eyes of his mind then will he say that the brightness of the shining of the sun is darkness beside the eternal brightness of God.

Since the motif is unique, the work of the highest caliber and the dating consistent with Alfred the Great’s reign (which ended in 899 A.D.), it’s entirely possible that the Fuller Brooch was crafted by artisans at Alfred’s court, likely for someone of great wealth and rank.

Sadly the article stops at just these three pieces, only whetting my appetite for more mapping of Anglo-Saxon designs. Weetch and Williams should go through the entire collection of the British Museum and decode every artifact in this way. Then they should animate the creatures untangling themselves from each other and make it interactive so we can select to follow one line at a time. Make it so.

 

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